Federal treasurer Joe Hockey has been awarded $200,000 in a defamation case against Fairfax Media over a story titled “Treasurer for sale”, about a Liberal party fundraising group.
In a decision that will bring increased scrutiny to social media, Hockey received $80,000 for two tweets about the story by Melbourne’s The Age account, which has nearly 425,000 followers.
The other $120,000 is for The Sydney Morning Herald’s advertising poster from May 5, 2014,
Justice Richard White of Sydney’s Federal Court dismissed the treasurer’s claims against the story, but upheld his claims against the poster, commonly used outside newsagents to promote a daily edition, and the tweets.
Hockey argued that this “treasurer for sale” headline implied he was involved in corrupt behaviour and sued Fairfax Media for defamation over the articles, tweets and posters published by the Herald, The Age and the Canberra Times on May 5 last year.
The story investigated links to a Liberal Party fundraising body known as the North Sydney Forum.
In its defence, Fairfax Media argued qualified privilege, because it was a matter of public interest.
The treasurer’s legal team argued there was malice behind the story.
In his judgment, Justice White said:
The awards cannot compensate Mr Hockey for all the hurt which he has experienced, because much of it results from publications which I have found not to be defamatory.
Mr Hockey would have suffered that hurt and any loss of reputation involved independently of the publication of the SMH poster and the first two Twitter matters.
As noted earlier, it is not possible to identify the hurt or damage occasioned by each publication. Inevitably therefore, there is some arbitrariness in the awards.
I consider that an award of $120,000 is appropriate in respect of the SMH poster and an award of $80,000 in respect of the two matters published on Twitter by The Age.
The second of these awards is less than would otherwise have been the case so as to avoid double compensation of Mr Hockey and because I consider that they are likely to have been read and “taken in” by fewer persons than in the case of the SMH poster.
Given the relationships between the respondents, I do not believe that the separation out of the awards in this way will cause injustice between them.
Fairfax has commented on the decision:
“Fairfax Media acknowledges the Federal Court of Australia’s judgment today in Treasurer Joe Hockey’s defamation cases against The Sydney Morning Herald and The Canberra Times.
“The Court upheld Fairfax’s defence of the articles and found them not to be defamatory. Mr Hockey’s claims were only upheld in respect to the publication of the SMH poster and two tweets by The Age because they lacked the context of the full articles. No claims were upheld with regard to The Canberra Times.
“All of Mr Hockey’s other claims were dismissed.”
The judgment included “much of Mr Hockey’s hurt and distress was said by him to result from publications which I have found were not defamatory”.
“The articles were found to be well researched and accurate,” the Fairfax spokesman said.
“As today and SMH reporting on donations in politics shows, Fairfax journalists remain fearless in their pursuit of information that is in the public interest.
“Fairfax is giving full consideration to the Court’s 120-page judgment before determining its position regarding appeal.”
* Allure Media, publisher of Business Insider Australia, is owned by Fairfax Media.
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